How Chronic Illness Ruins Your Motivation (and what to do about it)

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If you’ve been ill for any period of time, you know that it’s more difficult to do things you need to do or even enjoy. Usually, when you get better, your energy and motivation levels improve also.

Chronic illness makes that equation slightly more complex.

Even when the pain leaves, the motivation levels may stay as low as they were when you were ill. If you’ve noticed this phenomenon, you may wonder why, beyond the clearest answer – “depression”.

How chronic illness ruins motivation

Robert Malenka of Stanford University and his colleagues studied chronic pain in mice. They showed that persistent pain resulted in mice being less and less likely to work for food in comparison to their pain-free friends.

Long-term pain (in this case, a week for the mice), resulted in nerve-cell changes in the nucleus accumbens which is important for processing reward and reinforcement.

When the pain was relieved, the mice were still less willing to work for food even if they were hungry.

The researchers asked if they did not work for food because…

  1. their pain was too severe?
  2. they no longer valued food as much?
  3. they lacked motivation?

More tests showed that they could walk fine and still valued food. Their pain was relieved. They lacked motivation.

Although Dr. Malenka’s study was valuable, it may not be best to directly translate these findings to humans. What we can take from this is that long-term pain seems to reduce motivation even after the pain has left.

There seems to be a slight edge taken off life when you’re in pain because you grow to expect the pain to continue. More tasks appear futile because they were difficult or unable to be completed in the past.

Moreover, we must also be aware of the complex intertwining with depression, fatigue and emotional tiredness that comes with living with an illness for a long period of time. Quite literally, it can change you physically and mentally.

What can we do about it?

Now we know that chronic pain can influence motivation even when the pain isn’t there, we can start with the first tip:

  1. Forgive yourself

There are days when pain isn’t as bad but we still don’t want to do anything. Now we know why.

To stop yourself from falling victim to the useless command of “just snap out of it!”, understand that it’s more important to be on your own team and to forgive yourself if things don’t always go to plan.

2. Start small…

…and stay small.

I’ve long been an advocate of making small, healthier changes that you can do every day. They are more sustainable, more enjoyable, easier to do and easier to fit into the day. Not everything needs to be a 100% effort – and they’re useless if you can rarely put in that effort.

For example:

  1. 5 minute daily walks
  2. 5 minute meditation
  3. 20 minutes of reading

The daily actions vary from person to person. Some people can manage 30 minutes of walking a day, other people find it difficult to walk to the kitchen sometimes. No need to feel ashamed or arrogant about whatever stage we’re at.

What does “stay small” mean?

It means, on pain-free days or simply days that you feel good, you may not want to take advantage of that and do everything you’ve hoped for. It feeds into the boom and bust cycle of pain management.

Pain ratings:

Day 1: 5/10 | Day 2: 6/10 | Day 3: 4/10 | Day 4: 1/10 NOW WE RUN A MARATHON WHILE COOKING FOR 100 PEOPLE

Day 5: 9/10 – We do nothing.

And repeat.

We want to have a reasonable amount of consistency in our days so that we can consistently feel rewarded for our efforts regardless of our pain levels. That is easier said than done but still possible to a degree.

If we feed into the boom and bust cycle, even those days where your body doesn’t feel like it’s on fire can result in us doing very little.

3. Take time to slow down

Some days, all the medication or tips in the world can’t really help us. But we can try our best to take some time to ourselves and slow down just a bit.

Whether that is through:

  • Taking a few deep breaths
  • Stroking our hands lightly
  • Eating and drinking mindfully
  • Hugging a teddy bear (or person… subject to availability, of course)

We can experiment with healthy ways to stop ourselves from getting lost in the self-hatred or anxiety that comes from a lack of motivation and depression.

Why bother?

Chronic pain often makes us ask ourselves – why bother? We can very easily build resentment towards our condition and ourselves. Who doesn’t want to have more control over their lives?

I won’t tell you that you should feel a certain way after reading this. I certainly won’t say that you should feel motivated. However, do take away that small, sustainable changes can be a healthy way to manage pain and our motivation levels.

To end, I quote Toni Bernhard…

May you make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.


As always, thank you for reading!

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter!


Further reading:

12 Ways to Cope with Chronic Pain and Depression

Decreased motivation during chronic pain requires long-term depression in the nucleus accumbens

Study reveals brain mechanism behind chronic pain’s sapping of motivation

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The two-week experiment|The Sunday Monday Post

We’re two weeks into 2018.

How many new year resolutions have been broken and revitalised already? How many are still going strong?

That doesn’t matter too much. We all hear the same advice – make it a habit. Shoot for sustainable change rather than drastic alterations to our lifestyle. If you slip up once, get back on track as quickly as possible.

I agree with all of this advice because it’s helpful. However, it doesn’t address the main problem I find with New Year Resolutions.

They’re often boring and create too much pressure for perfection.

Who cares about being healthy when Pringles are £1? or exercise when it’s raining and windy?

2018 isn’t special. Neither will 2019 be. There is nothing grand about the change of year. We all know this, yet depend on it anyway even if we decide not to formally create any resolutions.

Why is this a misleading mindset?

Let’s take a quick look at the term “resolution”:

The firm decision to do or not to do something

“I’m going to exercise more”

“I’m going to eat less junk”

“I’m going to call my parents once a week”

Whatever the form, the underlying philosophy is that “this is the time I finally make a change!” When we make resolutions, we often treat them as though we should make a specific change and if we fail, we are failures. That isn’t true – it’s a misleading train of thought.

Experiments and Projects

I returned to an idea I probably heard from the likes of Tim Ferriss and that is the two week experiment and six month project. 

Experiments are an opportunity to try something new or do something slightly differently. They view failure as a possibility rather than something which must be avoided at all costs.

With New Year Resolutions, we always have the possiblity that we’ll fail but it’s as though we choose to ignore it because we believe we can will ourselves to success (it’s not that easy).

Two weeks is a short enough timeframe for our efforts not to feel unproductive and damaging. If we choose to jump ship early, we haven’t sunk too much time into it. If we enjoy it, we can simply carry on and maybe we’ll stick with it long enough.

It’s also a short enough timeframe for it to stay exciting, I’ve found. It’s like we get to become a slightly different person for a short time! Given how easy it is to get stuck in mundane routines, small changes can be wonderful.

The six month project allows for an overarching theme to come from the experiments.

A six month project: Learn data visualisation.

Two-week experiment no.1: Only utilise data on a sport you know nothing about when creating visualisations.

Two-week experiment no.2: Produce a new visualisation every two days.

Two-week experiement no.3: Work on a detailed visualisation that utilises a new skill and produce a story at the end of the two weeks.

You get the idea?

A current example of mine is the following.

Six month project: Lose weight.

Two-week experiment no.1: Have a vegan meal a day

It’s been going very well actually. They’re fun and a helpful break from the bad and good habits that I’ve maintained for a while.

Try the following:

  1. Write down a goal you’ve wanted to achieve.
  2. Think: six months has passed – what do I want it to look like? That is your new project.
  3. Experiment: what’s an interesting way to make progress on your project? What haven’t you tried before? What has been unsuccessful in the past and how might you make a change to it?

Now, be reasonable. I don’t recommend you try fasting for two weeks or skydiving without a parachute to aid weightloss.


Happy 2018!

What might you experiment with next?

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for updates!

What are you capable of? Probably more than you believe.

This isn’t meant to be an empty motivational post.

There’s a concept in long-distance running called the “second wind”. When athletes are tired and believe it is best to stop, they find they’re able to press on at a perfectly good pace.

If you’ve had a particularly difficult exercise session, you may have experienced this yourself. You challenged yourself to find a limit and found yourself pushing past it.

Although the following will be more difficult to measure, I want to consider this in cases other than exercise. How do we find this second wind?

First, it involves the belief that we can grow. This is often called the “growth mindset”. Briefly summarised, Carol Dweck argued that students perform better if they believe they’re able to get better relative to those who believe their intelligence is fixed by their genetics.

Second, it involves incorporating gradual challenges into our lives. As experiments. Just to find out what’s possible. Treating it as an experiment removes the pressure and invites failure as an honest possibility.

I like to think of practice as failure in a controlled environment.

Whether it is running, swimming, writing, or cooking for the family, test the limits. Believe you’re capable of improvement (because it’s true). Gradually challenge yourself and enjoy the surprise when you realise you’re more capable than you originally believed.

The existence of reservoirs of energy that habitually are not tapped is most familiar to us in the phenomenon of ‘second wind.’ Ordinarily we stop when we meet the first effective layer, so to call it, of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked ‘enough,’ and desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction, on this side of which our usual life is cast. But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed.

William James, 1907

Illness isn’t a performance

The depressed must look sad. Those in pain must look like they’re in pain.

Those who are ill must look like they are ill.

You might want to trace this down to the idea that you have to “see it to believe it” because a person telling you something isn’t as reliable as you simply seeing it for yourself. Unfortunately, this also means that in order for you to believe what you see, it has to confirm your prior conceptions of what you already believe.

To see someone in pain and believe they’re in pain, I have to fall back on my previous ideas of what it means to be in pain. Grimacing. A long face. Crying. Shouting.

These are preconceptions and we must admit they can be wrong.

The ill aren’t obligated to explicitly show they are ill in order for them to be believed. Often times, illness is complex for the person it affects and the other people it involves. The ill can express joyfulness, sadness, wonder and still be ill.

Illness isn’t a performance art even though it often feels like it needs to be.

To the ill, don’t put yourself under pressure to act a certain way in order to prove your illness (either to yourself or others).

To the non-ill, consider believing the word of the ill rather than dismissing it based on prior beliefs about how the ill should behave.

Both these statements are easier said than done but a step in a better direction.


Twitter: @improvingslowly

Facebook: Improving Slowly

As always, thank you for reading.

The Want Monster: Wanting What We Don’t Have

The “Want” Monster.

It’s that little voice in your head which tells you “I want this and that and everything in between!” or “I don’t want this because it’s horrible!”

It isn’t a kind voice but one of consistent temptation. It’s a quiet and smooth voice which can infiltrate your thoughts without a problem. And when we’re bombarded with advertising and deals designed to make you panic, the voice comes out in full force, puts on its lawyer suit and starts justifying everything it possibly can.

Unfortunately, the Want Monster is also dumb because wanting is all it can do. It doesn’t disappear once we have what we apparently desire. Rather, it presses the snooze button and waits for another opportunity to wake up again.

It’s an unquenchable thirst.

Tanha – the Buddhist idea of the self-focused desire to want more and more. We justify it by thinking that we will have a peace of mind after it appears.

But nah. That doesn’t happen.

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She’d probably go shopping for more. Looking good though, can’t lie.

I Want What You Have

I was eating lunch with my sister when I was about 7. We were having chicken wings with rice and stew. I finished mine, she hadn’t finished hers. And I sat down and ate the rest of my food in peace.

Ok, of course not. I stared at her plate of food until my gran gave me her wings and replaced my sister’s food with a boney piece of meat.

She held a grudge for years. Hell, I’d be mad too because those wings were magnificent.

This somewhat comical example of just wanting what other people have. Kids do it all the time. Adults do it too but with things more ambitious than chicken wings and toys.

Here is the science.

Lebreton et al in Your Goal Is Mine: Unraveling Mimetic Desires in the Human Brain, explores this in a lot of detail but I want to get to the important part for our purposes.

First, it’s really easy to start mimicking the desires of other people. The authors simply showed the participants pictures of sweets that looked slightly different and had an unseen person pick one. Uniformly, the participants preferred the sweet picked by the unseen person.

Second and most importantly, we don’t want something because someone else has it, we value something because someone else values it. This means that we believe the reward given by the item is greater because other people have it and we value highly valued things (sorry for the mouthful).

What does this mean for us?

The Want Monster will always have something to feast on and desire!

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I suppose in this picture, I would have taken the whole plate. Photo by Herson Rodriguez on Unsplash

How can we want less?

I’ll say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting things. Rather, it’s a source of suffering because our desires are ever changing and we can never seem to satisfy them.

Even if we get what we want.

So clearly, giving into our desires every time they pop up, isn’t a healthy way to address them.

What are your values?

When we notice the Want Monster knocking on our door, we may want to ask if what it is offering matches the values we want to live by and the long-term goals we have for ourselves.

We don’t always need to tell the Want Monster to click its heels three times and disappear. Addressing it with some calm can resolve the conflict the quickest.

If you haven’t thought through your values and long-term desires, you may want to take a few minutes from your day to think about it. Here is the example I wrote at 21.

The “If/Only” test

Another helpful pointer from Toni Bernhard (bloody love every word she puts on paper).

It helps us find out – do we think we’ll be completely satisfied if we got this one thing?

If only I had my sisters chicken wings, I’d be satisfied.

If only I wasn’t ill, I’d be completely happy.

If only I had new shoes, I’d feel better with my shoe collection.

If only I had this new job, I’d feel useful again.

Looking over these things, it seems odd to think that one new thing can put an end to the desires that we have. That isn’t to say they can’t help but I suggest we try moving away from believing that satisfying the Want Monster is the way to get it to leave.

After I had my sister’s chicken wings, I went back to the kitchen to look for more. There weren’t anymore.

Our happiness quickly gives way to new wants and don’t wants.

Focus on the desire rather than the object of the desire

The above test helps gently shift our attention towards mindfully thinking about the fact that we’re desiring something rather than what we are desiring.

It is helpful to realise that satisfying particular desires doesn’t lead to sustained happiness because more appear in its place.

When we notice this desire, we can simply let it be. With time, it’ll pass. That’s why it’s said, “if you want something, wait a week and see if you forget about it”. (OK, it’s probably more elegant than that but I’m an amateur.)

Desires aren’t all bad.

To end, I want to clarify something that could be easily mistaken. Don’t take this as me saying all desires are bad.

I’ve used the term Want Monster because unchecked desires can often lead us down a dangerous path.

We begin to follow our desires blindly rather than let our desires be guided by our values. If we want junk food but we also have a greater aim to feed your body good foods, it is the Want Monster guiding us to make decisions, for example.

Generally, the Want Monster is much more focused on the short term rather than the long term.

Mindfully addressing our desires and remembering the unquenchable thirst will allow us to live closer to our personal values and get things that mean the most to us.

If I could go back in time, I would give my sister’s chicken wings back and enjoy my rice and stew in peace.


As always, thank you for reading!

No question for today. All I ask is that you share your thoughts on this topic!

Comment down below :)

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!


Further Reading:

You want that? Well I want it, too! The neuroscience of mimetic desire

How to Wake Up

How to Stay Calm and Present Regardless of What Life Throws At You

Photo by Robert Wnuk on Unsplash

Engaging life challenges us to be fully present and actively involved in our moment-to-moment experience, without clinging to joy and without resisting sorrow.

~ Toni Bernhard

Equanimity.

The act of greeting whatever confronts us with an even temper and steady reaction.

Cultivating this state is how we stay calm regardless of whatever confronts us rather than adding on top of our suffering with the emotions that come from clinging to joy and resisting sorrow.

When we face particularly difficult emotions or situations, without any training, it can be very easy to pile suffering on top of our experiences without realising it.

Toni Bernhard says:

Grasping at what is pleasant sets us up for impermanence dukkha because change is inevitable.

Resisting what is unpleasant serves only to add stress to what is already a difficult situation.


When I was first told by my doctor that there wasn’t much to do about my pain, I came home and was so angry I kicked a hole in my door.

During a summer, I had a few days when I didn’t experience any pain and it was so strange but I became extremely happy thinking that my pain had solved itself.

In both of these situations, I didn’t treat them with an evenness of temper. Rather, I allowed myself to become overly consumed with them which led to suffering later down the road.

 

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Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

 

Calm in the pleasant

Please don’t mistake what I’m saying to mean “evenness of temper means to kill hope”. It does not. As Martin Luther King Jr says:

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Rather, it means that we allow ourselves to fully experience the good times but not to expect it to last forever. When we remember that pleasant moments don’t last forever and they’re simply one of the ten thousand joys we’ll experience, it gives us the opportunity to savour the present more!

If anything, it’s simply a reminder of the truth. However, it’s not a depressing one when we come to understand that when one joy ends, it means another will come again! If I worry that the happiness is leaving, then I’m only adding to the extra sadness that I’m going to experience. It’s a funny little paradox.

“I’ll enjoy this experience while it lasts, knowing that, like all phenomena, it will pass and another experience will take its place”

Calm in the unpleasant

Now, this is more difficult.

Tough emotions tend to bring out sadness, fear or anger. All of these emotions have the uncanny ability to pull us into the darkness they create and keep us there. While we remember that these emotions will change and leave, it still seems hard to keep ourselves out of its gravitational pull.

However, in order to explore your emotions, you will first need to have some kind of calm and the ability to look inwards.

The main thing to realize is that the emotion won’t going to last forever. It never does.

How to stay Calm during pleasant and unpleasant experiences

This is tough stuff. To start our practice, we can begin with meditation and a few personal sayings. (Click here if you want a short beginners guide to meditation.)

  1. Meditate

Sit down with some alertness. If it’s more comfortable, lie down.

Asking yourself “what emotions am I experiencing right now?”

Then describe it neutrally. If you’re angry, try saying “Anger is present”. If you’re sad, try saying “sadness is being experienced”. If you’re happy, try “Happiness is in the air”.

Whatever it is, your aim while meditating isn’t to solve anything.

While we meditate, we want to acknowledge how we’re feeling and simply experience it. If you find your mind running away again (because that’s what minds do), calmly bring yourself back to the moment and see what happens.

If we go in with no expectations, then it’s going to make the entire process smoother. If we go in with expectations that we’re going to screw up or that we’re going to come out an enlightened person, we’ll only be disappointed.

This releases us from the burden of trying to keep sadness from ever infiltrating our lives and from straining our best to keep happiness from leaving. They both leave. They’ll both return at some point.

2. Utilise Positive Self-talk

Meditation is like practising before kick-off. What about when we become angry or sad, what do we do then?

  1. Describe emotions neutrally.

Like mentioned above: Take yourself out of the equation and just describe the emotion. This removes the force that personal attachment has when thinking about how we feel.

“I am sad” -> “sadness is happening”

“I am in pain” -> “pain is present”

“I’m really happy” -> “happiness is in the air”

2. Acknowledge ups and downs come and go.

A common theme recently – emotions come and go. To remind us of this, we can say the following:

  • “May we accept with grace both our successes and disappointments”
  • “This is only one of the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows”
  • “We can experience things without needing to fix them”
  • “Let’s not get lost in this moment but engage with it meaningfully”

Talking in terms of “we” rather than “I” helps reinforce the idea that I can talk to myself as though I am my friend. It’s worthwhile.

Equanimity is a small practice on the face of it but also remarkably difficult. It’s not something I have down completely but I can thank myself for the small times when I do manage to get it done because it helps me enjoy happier moments and not add suffering to the times I’m in a lot of pain or remarkably tired.


Some days it’ll go well, some days it’ll suck. Other days we’ll forget about it completely. We don’t hate ourselves for these fluctuations in progress. We treat these realizations with calm then move on. With time and practice, it becomes easier.

We’ll appreciate more that we’re simply a working draft with flaws, mistakes, sorrows, and joys.


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

How do you remain calm during difficult times? 

Comment down below :)

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

If you liked this post, share it with others!

4 Ways To Be Happy for Other People

It’s easy to feel bad about other people’s achievements. We compare ourselves to their personal position in life (as though life is a straight line with a finish!) and usually note the bad stuff.

“She’s got this wonderful job – I’m stuck here!”

“He’s in really good shape and I’ve just finished a burger and chips with plenty of regret on the side”

Whatever it is, it tends to follow the pattern of “they’ve done x, I haven’t done x so I suck”.

This kind of thinking pattern sucks out a lot of joy from every interaction.

Our joy becomes inauthentic, we dislike ourselves because of what someone else has done and the other person may feel guilty for sharing their happiness.

Instead, we can practice mudita or appreciative joy.

Here are four skills we can slowly develop to increase the amount of happiness we have for other people!

  1.  Empathy goes both ways

Empathy is usually spoken about in terms of making sense of another person’s suffering. We step into their shoes to experience the path they walk in order to treat them better in the future.

But really, empathy is a neutral term. It is:

The capacity to understand and share the feelings of others ~ google 2017

Meaning we can do the same for happiness as we can for sadness. And don’t worry, you’re not stealing happiness from them the same way you’re not taking sadness from someone by simply being empathetic.

It’s the result of the empathy which tells you whether you’ve been kind and helpful.

We can develop empathy in a variety of ways. For now, I’ll pass you onto the lovely book Empathy by Roman Krznaric

2. Start with those we do not have a complicated relationship with

Oddly enough, it’s those closest to us which may cause us the most sadness. The self-comparison is often that bit more intense.

But when we start with people our relationship isn’t too complicated with, we reduce the chances of feeling envious or frustrated because we see less of their lives (and have less to compare ourselves too).

So this can be a distant friend or an acquaintance. We take ourselves out of the equation and simply experience the happiness that comes from someone else’s joy.

When we start practising appreciative joy towards people who are closer to us, that feeling becomes more intense and valuable. We’re likely to understand just how much someone wanted that job or how hard they worked to achieve the results they did.

The extra context, instead of inspiring envy, intensifies the joy.

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Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

3. Keep your ego in check

Ego is the Enemy says Ryan Holiday and in many respects, I agree. Especially when it comes to being happy for other people.

When the feelings of jealousy and frustration arise due to someone else’s happiness, much of it can be attributed to our ego being starved for attention and jealousy is its way of taking it back.

It doesn’t care whether it brings sadness or happiness, all it wants is attention.

It’s incredibly difficult to be genuinely happy for another person and at the same time be completely self-absorbed.

So when you notice those feelings arise you can ask yourself: am I simply craving attention? The answer is likely “yes”. If it is, you can gently return you attention to the other person’s happiness.

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Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

4. Enjoy being happy

It may be tempting to think something along the lines of “I don’t deserve to be happy because someone else is happy!”

That’s just the comparison monster creeping in again. And it’s speaking complete tosh.

When do you deserve to be happy, then? When you’ve crushed everyone around you with your unwavering financial success? When everyone in the world is happy for you and you’re too cool to smile and say thanks?

Forget about whether you deserve to be happy by rejoicing in someone else’s joy.

What you’re doing is a lovely act of compassion. You’re allowing yourself to calm the feelings of envy and you’re directing even more happiness and pride in someone else’s path.

How wonderful is that?

And that is appreciative joy. A remarkably simple practice but one which brings plenty of happiness to everyone who experiences it.


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

Who are you happy for? 

Comment down below :)

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

If you liked this post, share it with others!